Inspired by Toni Muzi Falconi's reflections on the academic conference season (PR Conversations) here are a few thoughts from my experience to BledCom2013, BCN Meeting PR in Barcelona, but also Ragan's International Social Media and PR Summit in Amsterdam.
This was my first Bled since 2006, and although proud of the contributions of Lund colleagues, and the politics panel with Liz Bridgen, Sarah Williams, Holger Sievert and the irrepressible Bruno Amaral, I can't honestly say I came back with a bulging notepad full of new ideas. Plenty of stimulating conversations, yes, but not much that rocked me on my heels. That said, Dejan Vercic and colleagues have done a splendid job in energising debate across Europe for 20 years: tehirs is a considerable achievement and we should have very confidence that Dejan will deliver again in 2014.
And Barcelona did deliver.
I did the book launch for my PR in Fiction opus "I Wish I were a Cow", but I suppose I will have to concede that the second edition of Robert Heath's Encyclopaedia of Public Relations, due out in September, will probably have the greater lasting impact, and it was impressive that Bob, David McKie, Michael Palenchar and Tim Coombs turned what could have been an embarrasing back slapping session into an enlightening and stimulating reflection on progress of PR academic study. Tim made an excellent presentation highlighting the role the Encylopaedia has played in defining the ontology of PR, and Bob's overview gave interesting insights into the way the emphasis and pressure points are evolving, including the emergence of power and internationalisation as core topics.
I was lucky to go first in my session, as Roumen Dimitrov and Kate Fitch each delivered five star presentations - on the Undead and the Unsaid. Rouman spoke about Silence and Invisibility in PR, making the obvious but underexplored observation that what an organisation doesn't say is as significant as what it does, that the pause between musical notes is as important as the notes themselves. Philosophically fascinating, but as Rouman demonstrated, the role of silence does not lend itself easily to empirical study. He argued that silence is also a form of engagement, and contrary to some accepted wisdom, silence and invisibility are neithre good nor bad, but simply onotlogical categories.
Kate ended the morning with Promoting the Vampire Rights Amendment: PR, post-feminism and True Blood. I will have to find out more about Nan Flanagan, "the PR practitioner for a post feminist, media-literate world."
On the positive side, Sherry Holladay, Tim Coombs and Paul Willis were among those who who challenged some of the conceptual language used by social media advocates in a way that reflected sophisticated understanding of the seismic changes of the last ten years. Words like conversation and engagement have helped to change the way people think abut PR but as Sherry argued, many of the metaphors commonly used in framings of PR as relationship management simply don't stand up to close scrutiny: "Relationship management is more illusion than enlightenment."
We should be less happy that, particularly at Bled, people were still talking about "publics", were still seeing the online and offline worlds as somehow separate places, and that there was a continuing misunderstanding of reputation. What one person says, even if that one person is writing in the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal isn't reputation, it is opinion. Reputation is an aggregation of opinions, (today often facilitated through social media), with the defining thread being shared values. It is these shared values, not the superficial connection of likes etc, that holds the key to modern public relations.
Thinking again about silence and the unsaid, what was missing from both Bled and Barcelona was an appreciation of importance of visuals in PR discourse. I am not just talking about Instagram, Pinterest and Vine, which may or may not have real traction, but it is inescapable that from Facebook to BBC News, images are replacing words. You Tube, anyone?
Speaker after speaker at Amsterdam, from Lego and MTV, Ford and Marvel recognised that the conversation (pace Sherry) is visual. Reputation is being shaped by images, and the PR academy needs to find a language to capture this shift.
I know from not always comfortable experience that it is not easy to fuse practitioner and academic themes two, and I hate what Paul Willis would call "Serve and volley" marketing pitch presentations, but I can't believe any academic wouldn't learn a great deal from Lars Silberbauer, Peter von Satzger and some of the other brilliant communicators brought together by Mark Ragan and his team.